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Professor John Duncan (1796-1870) 

JAMES BARR, M.A., B.D., D.D., F.B.A. 

Although John Duncan was a predecessor of mine, I have to admit that I 
never knew very much about him, and what I have to say today depends 
very largely on what I have been able to glean from the familiar printed 
sources and works of reference. 1 Some anecdotes circulated in New 
College when I was a student; I remember James S. Stewart telling one. 
According to this story, it was rumoured among the students that 
Duncan, being exceptionally learned, said his personal prayers in 
Hebrew, and a group of students stole up quietly to the door in order to 
listen to this phenomenon. What they heard was Duncan saying, 
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child”. Stories of that 
kind are typical of the Duncan tradition. 

What I have been unable to discover is where and from whom he 
learned his Hebrew in the first place. As is well known, he wrote very 
little, and most of his output is in the form of aphorisms and short 
speeches collected by friends and admirers. In the most quoted such 
volume, the Colloquia Peripatetica (sub-titled Deep-Sea Soundings ), 
edited by William Knight (1870), there is practically no mention or 
citation of any Hebrew word, while Greek is fairly common." In 1839 


This is the original text of the “Words of Remembrance” spoken by Professor James 
Barr at the Rededication of Duncan’s gravestone in the Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh, 4 
July 1996. An edited and abbreviated form, lacking the footnotes, was published in New 
College (Edinburgh) Bulletin , Anniversary Issue, 1996. I want to express my especial 
gratitude to Mr David F. Wright for his swift and valuable aid in making literature 
accessible to me, as well as for much understanding and kindness in all arrangements for 

the ceremony. 

2 

The same is true of the “Miscellaneous Sayings” collected in D. Brown, Life of the 
late John Duncan, LL.D. (Edinburgh, 1872), 400-32. One saying quoted in Brown, John 
Duncan, 404. reads: “ The Greek and Hebrew minds. - “The Greek mind was abstract; 
the Hebrew concrete” - not so very original a thought, but perhaps one that agrees with 
Duncan’s own strong tendency towards the abstract. Again Brown, John Duncan, 405: 
“The Hebrew language is peculiarly rich in religious-moral terms, though scantly enough 
in others. The reason is evident, it chronicled a Revelation”. There is nothing special or 
profound in this. Cf.. W. Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica (Deep-Sea Soundings) being 
Notes of Conversations by the late John Duncan, Ll.D., with the Rev. William Knight 

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he applied for the Hebrew chair of the University of Glasgow, the 
previous professor having been moved to the chair of Moral 
Philosophy. In his letter of application he stated that “for upwards of 
fifteen years I have been a daily and delighted student of the Hebrew 
Bible, and during the last I have contracted a pretty intimate 
acquaintance with the principal Rabbinical writers”. He added that he 
had done studies in Syriac, Arabic, Persian (“a long time ago”), 
Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindustani and Mahratti, though in some of these he 
claimed no more than to have looked into the Gospels in that language. 
He was not appointed to that Glasgow chair but anyway, if we may 
reckon back his devotion to Hebrew, fifteen years would take us to 
around 1 824. It was then, when he was a student in the Divinity Hall of 
the Established Church (he began, of course, in the Secession, moved 
early to the Church of Scotland, and at the Disruption, as we know, 
opted for the Free Church) that much of his study must have been done. 
“Hebrew was his chief delight at this time, and with it the cognate 
tongues”, writes David Brown of this period; 3 one can understand it, 
perhaps, for Duncan, though ending up as a pillar of pious orthodoxy, 
had gone through numerous changes and conversions, being at various 
times an atheist, a Sabellian, a Unitarian, a theist who was not 
“converted to God” and so on. It looks as if this time of quiet belief and 
religiosity, when he was “converted to theism but not to God, to 


(Edinburgh, 1873), 80, where we hear that “the Shemitic mind is more receptive than 
imaginative. It seems to have received a gift from above, and preserved it, for it was not 
creative like the Greek mind”. In comparisons of language and intellect, Duncan was 
more interested in the difference between Plato and Aristotle (e.g. Colloquia , 23f.) than 
in that between Greek and Hebrew. Again, in his Inaugural Lecture “The Theology of the 
Old Testament”, though the importance of Hebrew study is emphasized as one would 
expect, the lecture contains no reference to any Hebrew word apart from one phrase 
cited, but hardly commented on, on p. 137; while Greek is much more obvious: for 
instance, on p. 136, where Duncan says that sin “not only deserves orge, but is in itself 
echthra”, he uses the Greek words and makes no mention of the Hebrew terms that 
might be relevant. 

Brown, John Duncan, 83. Cf. “The Theology of the Old Testament" , which 
expresses (p. 1 24) the wish that two sessions might be devoted entirely to exegesis, to the 
study of Jewish antiquities, and to “ the acquiring of such acquaintance with the 
languages cognate to Hebrew, as is needful to a full and scholar-like knowledge of that 
ancient tongue ” (my italics). 


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Christianity but not to Christ ’ 4 may have favoured his linguistic studies 
well. Though still in a sort of student status, he was trying to assemble a 
small group to study Hebrew with him. I suspect he was basically self- 
taught . 5 He was a language-learner rather than a linguistic scholar . 6 

However he learned his Hebrew, all voices agree that he taught it 
badly. The College eventually appointed A.B. Davidson as coadjutor 
and later successor because it was recognized that Duncan was 
“impossible” at this . 7 One reason for this was that, though he came 


4 Chapter heading of Brown, John Duncan , 7 1 . 

5 He could have learned some Hebrew in the course of his early studies at Marischal 
College, Aberdeen, but I have not seen any evidence of it. Part of the reasoning behind 
his long letter of application for the Glasgow professorship was the fact that he had no 
one to write a certificate for him, which I take to imply that he had no authorized teacher 
to write a recommendation for him. 

6 “Through life languages were a passion with him, and none came amiss to him, 
however remote from those usually studied, and whether likely or not to be of practical 
use to him” (Brown, John Duncan, 84). Among such languages were “a Turkish 
grammar” which he was “engaged in writing for the troops in the Crimea” {ibid., 100); 
for Gaelic “he attached himself to some of the Highland students, that he might acquire 
some knowledge of the Gaelic language”, ibid., 93 (with Gaelic he seems to have had 
little success); he “hunted out the Ethiopic and Armenian alphabets, had got hold of the 
principal verbs and nouns, and had got through ten of the Psalms in Ethiopic - all in one 
week”, ibid., 84-5. While writing his letter of application to Glasgow University he spent 
considerable time in “amusing though rather tedious dissertations on the basis, for 
example, of that composite language, the Maltese”, and only with difficulty was 
restrained from including all this material in his application {ibid., 283). What about 
Hungarian, which should have been a prime example? According to Brown, John 
Duncan, 317, the quick impression made by Duncan in Hungary rested on his fluent 
Latin - an achievement which doubtless goes back to his early studies at Aberdeen. 
Indeed, he soon set himself to learn the Magyar language, but “did not attempt to speak 
it, but confined himself to the right understanding of printed books”. In modem times 
Professor G.W. Anderson (in his article ‘Two Scottish Semitists”, Vetus Testamentum 
Supplements 28, 1975, xv) referred to Duncan as “a man of vast linguistic erudition” and 
adds the anecdote that it was said that “he could talk his way to the Wall of China”. This 
“vastness” is what was thought, and perhaps what Duncan wanted to be thought. More 
likely, he had only a smattering of most of these. His extremely slight use of even 
Hebrew in his conversations and arguments suggests something very different. 

The word “impossible” is not my own: I borrow it from Disruption to Diversity: 
Edinburgh Divinity, 1 846- 1 996, .e dd. D.F. Wright and G.D. Badcock (Edinburgh, 1996), 
50: “the orthodox and deeply pious John Duncan was nevertheless impossible 

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as a 


before the era of source criticism and emendation, he was a “modernist” 
in regard to comparative philology, and where students were struggling 
with the simplest rudiments of Hebrew it was - and still is - not a good 
method to elucidate it with examples from Arabic and Syriac. Secondly, 
he could never keep to the point, and any intellectual question, however 
minute, caused him to survey a vast ground of deep and metaphysical 
problems. This tendency was accentuated by his failure to make any 
preparation for almost any of his lectures. Even his lecture at the 
inauguration of the College in 1850 was, apparently, prepared only 
through the prescience of his colleague Dr Buchanan, who went to 
Duncan’s house the evening before to make sure that the lecture was 
ready. Not a word had been written. He had, Duncan said, other things 
to attend to than writing lectures. “But what else”, Buchanan 
expostulated, “can you have to attend to more important than the 
preparation of your lecture?” “The state of my own soul” was Duncan’s 
reply. Buchanan insisted on sitting down, taking pen and ink and 
forcing Duncan to dictate a lecture to him. * * * * * * * 8 Thirdly, his personal 


teacher of Hebrew”. Almost all comments on his teaching are adverse. Thus Brown, 
John Duncan, 85: “Of teaching, he was rarely without as much as he had time for, but 

seldom did he make enough by it to keep him in comfort - his intolerable irregularity 

and slovenly habits generally losing him the pupils whom his known attainments never 
failed to bring him”. For adverse comments on his teaching of Hebrew see the 

testimonies of various former students collected in Brown, John Duncan, 355ff.; cf. 358: 

“his habits of mind totally unfitted him for the efficient teaching of elementary Hebrew, 
or indeed for any kind of merely routine work’; 360: “the class, viewed as a class for the 
teaching of Hebrew, was not very efficiently conducted. Sometimes the thing prescribed 

was not taken up, but something quite different. And sometimes a discussion on 

something incidentally emerging in the course of the lesson would occupy most of the 
hour”. 365: “he was, in a sense, as a Professor, a failure”. 

8 Brown, John Duncan, 388. Even so, Buchanan’s efforts were not wholly effective. 
Even in its published form as “The Theology of the Old Testament", the text still 
contains (132f.) a portion that looks like a paragraph but consists only of brief lecture 
notes. It reads thus: 

I will put enmity, &c. - Sacrifice - Clothing with skins - Covenant with Noah - 
Covenant with Abraham — His seed - Sacrifice of Isaac - Confirmation of covenant 
with Isaac and Jacob - Proclamation of Jehovah's name to Moses - The angel of 
Jehovah, who is himself Jehovah - The whole ceremonial law - High priest - Day 
of atonement - Daily service of the tabernacle - Isaiah liii — Psalm ii.,viii., 
xxii.,lxxx.,cx., &c. 


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eccentricity was of phenomenal dimensions . 9 Without ceaseless 
vigilance from his wife he would never have known where he should 
be, what classes he was teaching, which students he was supposed to 
examine . 10 Particularly noted in the literature is his inability to control 
his hours of sleep. He took private students but they complained that he 
was still in bed at the time when the lesson began and went fast asleep 
immediately thereafter . * 11 It is recorded, conversely, that in one Hebrew 


Does this mean that Duncan was going to discuss all these subjects but still, when the 
rest of the lecture had been dictated, had not yet formulated what he was going to say 
about them? 

It may seem odd that material was actually published in this form. It is interesting 
therefore that in the same volume the lecture by Dr Alexander Black, the Professor of 
Exegetical Theology, ends up in the same way with half a page of unarticulated lecture 
notes (ibid., 157f.). 

9 I do not guarantee the canonicity of all the stories told, some of which I have heard, 
perhaps with slight variations, of other Scottish divines of the same period. For instance 
(A. Moody-Stuart, Recollections of the late John Duncan , LL.D. (Edinburgh, 1872), 
118): on his wedding-day his niece sent him into his bedroom to get dressed. The idea of 
being there may have suggested the sequence of undressing. Anyway, the hour for the 
marriage arrived and the cab was there to carry him, but there was no sign of the 
bridegroom. He was found in bed sound asleep with a Hebrew book in his hand. Apart 
from the Hebrew of the book, something similar may have been told of many Scottish 
professors. 

This was, incidentally, his second marriage, to “a widow lady, Mrs Torrance”, 
before he left Scotland for Pesth (ibid.,, 66). His first marriage was in 1837 to Miss Janet 
Tower of Aberdeen. Note the following exchange (ibid., 59): 

“I believe Miss Tower is a superior woman”, I remarked to a lady in Glasgow. “Of 
course”, she replied, “none but a most superior woman would ever marry John 
Duncan”. 

The first Mrs Duncan died in 1839; see Brown, John Duncan, 267ff. Both the first and 
the second Mrs Duncan are commemorated on the sides of his gravestone. 

10 Moody-Stuart, Recollections, 88f. 

1 1 Brown, John Duncan, 85. So again ibid., 102f., whose description is worth quoting 
in full: 

I had just taken my degree, and, intending to enter the Divinity Hall in the following 
session, was anxious, before putting myself under the Professor of Hebrew, to get 
some insight into the language from one whose attainments in Oriental literature 
were so well known. I engaged with Mr. Duncan accordingly for a quarter’s 
teaching, but being at that time in full employment, he could only, for a favour, take 
me from six to seven in the morning - an hour that with his known habits gave me 
little hope of getting much out of him. In truth, when I went to his class-room half 


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class he assisted (as he thought) a student by explaining to him all the 
thirteen conjugations of the Arabic verb and then following him into his 
bedroom with additional matter, continuing with three further lessons 
during the night, the last of them at about three o’clock in the 
morning . 12 

Some of these aspects are so extravagant that they would seem to 
make John Duncan into a figure of fun. This would be a mistaken 
assessment. What are the other sides? One of them can be named with a 
single word: Budapest, or Pesth as it was then called. Duncan obviously 
struck many persons of discrimination in that city as a man of 
extraordinary intellectual authority. He acquired the confidence of 
aristocratic persons, he conversed learnedly with ecclesiastics of 
various Catholic and Orthodox persuasions, he was warmly at home 
with the Hungarian Protestants and did much for their church. All this 
from a man whose background had been a narrow one, who had no 
cultural preparation for what he was to find in the Austro-Hungarian 
empire. The depth of character and authority that the Hungarians saw in 
him must remain with us in our minds today, just as the connection of 
New College with the Hungarian Reformed Church remains. 

Secondly, the remarkable impact of Duncan upon the Jews of 
Hungary and their acceptance and reception of him. There was 
something in Duncan’s character that was powerfully worthy of 
hearing. Afterwards people called him “Rabbi Duncan”, and they often 
point to his aphoristic sayings. Yet I personally do not see much that is 
rabbinic in that aspect of him: his sayings are too obviously deep in 
Christian theology, orthodox and unorthodox, or else in general culture, 
mainly Greek and Latin, some French and German, some international 


the hour had usually elapsed ere he appeared, and often having slept in, he never 
appeared at all. Thus my quarter’s teaching amounted to just about six weeks of 
broken hours or half-hours. But beyond all price were these hours to me. His very 
defects as an elementary teacher of grammar arose from qualities which made him 
everything to me. Scarcely had we got beyond the alphabet when he plunged into 
dissertations on the genius, history, and characteristic divergences of the leading 
Semitic tongues, the philosophy of vocalization, etc.; passages from his great 
master, Albert Schultens, were read and commented on, and soon we got into 
Arabic, with Erpenius for our grammatical guide, and Golius for our lexicon. 
Moody-Stuart, Recollections, 89. 


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philosophy. But I could see that his personality gave an impression such 
as a rabbi’s personality gives to Jews, and if so that nickname was not 
without good cause. Both Edersheim and Saphir were learned and 
deeply religious Jews, and the fact that they both became Christians 
(and, eventually, Christian ministers) within a year or two of Duncan’s 
arrival must mean something extremely unusual. 

I end where I began, with his personal piety, which is what struck 
people at the time, people who could judge better of that than they 
could of his learning. Whatever he gained from his adventures in 
atheism and unorthodoxy - if these adventures ever really took place - 
he seems to have ended up with a combination of Calvinist orthodoxy 
and a highly personal piety. And this was what impressed people. I 
already mentioned how, when he should have been preparing the most 
important lecture of his career, he said he had his own soul to worry 
about. Similarly, it was customary for lectures to begin with a short 
prayer. In Duncan’s classes, however, these prayers were often long 
extended, and indeed it is recorded that on some occasions only the bell 
which ended the lecture period made him aware that the lecture had not 
in fact begun . 13 Strongly convinced as he was, he was conscious also of 
the times of doubt, dejection and desperation in his past . 14 If he had 
been a systematic thinker he might have ended up on one side, if he had 


Brown, John Duncan, 362: “On one occasion the prayer that should have preceded 
the lesson prolonged itself for the whole hour, and it was only the ringing of the bell at 
the end of the hour that awoke him to a remembrance of the actual circumstances of the 

case”. Cf. Also ibid., 371. 

14 

I leave to a footnote a question that it would be distasteful to raise in this speech 
itself: namely, whether the reputation for humility in which Duncan was so often held 
was deserved. “Of a lowly and loving spirit” is the wording of the gravestone, and this 
rightly expresses the feeling which he left behind him in the hearts of thousands. 
Humility was an essential part of his Calvinistic piety. Did it apply, however, in equal 
measure to his awareness of his own knowledge ? Brown reveals another side when he 
relates the composition of the famous letter applying for the Glasgow professorship. He 
writes ( John Duncan, 282f.): “It would have astonished and amused any one who did not 
know that most marked feature in his character, his consciousness of power in whatever 
department of knowledge he had mastered - whether Languages, Philosophy, Theology, 
or even General Literature - to hear how, humble though he was and eminently modest, 
he could dilate on his attainments, his superiority to all he knew in this, to all but one or 
possibly two in that, and so on”. 


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followed out his biblical studies more methodically he might have 
moved in a different direction altogether, as some colleagues and 
successors were to do. As it was, he remains a highly idiosyncratic 
figure and a monument in one person to the union of many sides in 
Scottish culture as it was in that time. 

Vanderbilt Divinity School, 
Nashville, Tennessee 


BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Article “Duncan, John”, Dictionary of National Biography xvi. 167-8, 
by “W.G.B.” (W. Garden Blaikie) 

D. Brown, Life of the late John Duncan, Ll.D (Edinburgh, 1872) 

J. Duncan, “The Theology of the Old Testament”, in Inauguration of 
the New College of the Free Church, Edinburgh , ed. W. Cunningham 
(London and Edinburgh, 1851), 123-42 

W. Knight, Colloquia Peripatetica ( Deep-Sea Soundings), being Notes 
of Conversations by the late John Duncan, Ll.d with the Rev William 
Knight (Edinburgh, 1873) 

A. Moody-Stuart, Recollections of the late John Duncan, Ll.D 
(Edinburgh, 1872) 

Disruption to Diversity: Edinburgh Divinity, 1846-1996, edd. D.F. 
Wright and G.D. Badcock (Edinburgh, 1996) 


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